Career Corner: Death in the workplace
At the risk of appearing morbid, the issue of death in the workplace is something that we may encounter at some point in our working lives and is therefore something that we must discuss. When an employee dies, there are several things that must be taken into consideration, these include the emotional state of other employees, and business continuity. Although the death of a colleague is not an everyday occurrence, and is not something we wish to deal with, there are things that HR should do to manage this situation, if it occurs.
- Notification. One of the first things that HR must do is to notify employees that a team member has died. Company policy may dictate which employees are notified first (e.g. colleagues in the deceased person’s department or all employees at once)- what is important however is that official notification comes from HR. From a business standpoint, if the deceased employee interfaced with external clients, these persons should also be notified.
- Counseling. Grief management and support is a crucial step, as it is important to assist employees who must deal with the trauma of losing a colleague. HR should therefore ensure that grief counselors are on-site to support employees as they go through the grieving process.
- Family. HR should contact the deceased’s family to get information about funeral arrangements- this information should also be shared with employees to afford them the opportunity to attend the memorial service if desired. It is important for HR to be sensitive to the family during this time, and it may be best to ask for the name of a contact person who can provide funeral details and answer questions on the family’s behalf. Of equal importance, employees should refrain from contacting the deceased’s family, but instead should direct all questions to HR.
- Business Continuity. Although it is not immediately business as usual, the organization must continue to function if an employee dies. At the departmental level therefore, work that was done by the deceased should be divided amongst colleagues and reassigned to different team members as appropriate.
- Recruitment. HR will be responsible for filling the vacancy created by the deceased, and the same recruitment procedures used when there is any other organizational vacancy should be followed. Until a suitable replacement is found, the position may also be filled temporarily if dividing work amongst coworkers is not a feasible option.
- Termination. Importantly, after an employee dies, HR must ensure that they follow standard termination procedures as they would when an employee resigns. This means (for e.g.) that the employee must be removed from internal systems, company property like ID cards, cell phones and laptops must be recovered, and security issues must be properly addressed.
Admittedly, the matter of death in the workplace is a sensitive issue. What is critical at this time, is to be mindful of the needs of employees who must cope with the loss of a colleague, while still being required to execute their daily tasks. For the business, an employee’s death can have a significant impact on operations. When an employee resigns, there is the opportunity to ask him/her for assistance in the transition process such that the business is not affected. We are not afforded this luxury at death. It therefore behooves us to have procedures in place outlining different tasks associated with our jobs, and the steps on how to carry out certain activities. Should we have to respond to a death in the workplace, it is critical for HR to demonstrate flexibility and sensitivity during this time to assist all affected parties.
Malaika T. Edwards is a Human Resources consultant and provides advisory services to individuals and business clients. She is also a PhD candidate at the Louisiana State University (LSU) where she specializes in Human Resources and Workforce Development. You can contact her at email@example.com, or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/malaika-edwards